Back on February, in preparation for the ever approaching Spring Training report dates and ultimately the hopeful beginning of the 2021 Major League Baseball season, the MLBPA and the powers that be from MLB came to an agreement on the health and safety protocols for 2021. After having brought their negotiations in front of fans once again over numerous weeks in a battle posed as universal DH in exchange for expanded playoffs, with a strongly worded letter from the Cactus League mixed in, both sides were able to reach a compromise with the most significant guidelines being addressed. However, as many focused on the 7 innings double headers and the runner on second to start extra innings, which most of us can agree is the one of the most asinine rules to be adopted by the game of baseball, the potential repercussions for Minor League Baseball; in particular AAA were often glassed over. I myself didn’t give the implications their just due until the Indianapolis Indians announced the release of their schedule less than two weeks later.
On April 6th the AAA-Indianapolis Indians were set to travel to Memphis to take on the Redbirds, only five days after the Pirates opener against the Cubs at Wrigley Field. In theory this progression could make all the sense in the world. After Pittsburgh participates in its last contest of the spring at CenturyLink Sports Complex, home of the Twins, in Fort Meyers they could send the MLB roster north to begin the season, and at the same time assigning players to Indianapolis; also allowing MiLB camp to begin in Bradenton for Low A through AA. It could potentially be a smooth and simple progression to start the season. But, as I thought about this, my mind kept drifting back to the health and safety protocols along with the precise wording concerning the MiLB season.
Prior to Opening Day teams would be required to submit 26-man active roster and a 28-man AAA/alternate site list, with only those 28 players being eligible for call ups to MLB; which did even begin to explain how the the five player taxi squad would work if the AAA season started on time. Built into this plan was the ability of MLB to decide whether or not the AAA season would actually kickoff on April 6th up to 15 days before that date, so the powers that be surprisingly didn’t wait until the actual last minute again to make a decision. However, this doesn’t make it any easier to swallow because the memories and emotions of a cancelled 2020 MiLB season are still a little too raw; along with the excitement of teams, such as the Indians, when they rolled out their 2021 schedules.
Nevertheless, it is the hand that has been dealt, so it’s time to adjust and plan for the ever approaching end to Spring Training. Currently the Pirates have 73 players in Bradenton, which includes two 60 day IL members in Austin Davis and Jose Soriano, with two spaces left until they reach the maximum number allowed. In about a months time Ben Cherington will have to whittle these 71 able bodied guys to 54 that will be available to play in Pittsburgh up until at least May 4th.
Last season the alternate site was utilized as a developmental playground for some of the teams top prospects, as well as a holding tank for some MLB ready players. Most teams operated in a similar fashion, so it was no surprise that there were 212 debuts last season in only 60 games, with many stepping from limited experience at the AA level to MLB contributors; including Pirates reliever Nick Mears. For reference there were a total of 261 across 162 games the previous year, which would pale in comparison to the estimated 572 that could have taken place if 2020 was a normal season; and it looks like the intended level of normalcy for the 2021 isn’t going to happen just quite yet. Instead, Cherington is going to have to shuffle the deck, play the options game and make some tough decisions concerning spots on both the 26-man and 28-man alternate site rosters, with the later ultimately becoming the 2021 Indianapolis Indians; once again not really touching on the extent of the man taxi squad beyond May 4th when the Indians are now set to take on the Cubs of Iowa. Also the Altoona Curve are scheduled to play at home, the 2020 alternate site, versus the Bowie Baysox, actually a Orioles affiliate and not a Red or White Sox one, on the 4th of May as well.
This situation could undoubtedly get messy, and eventually throw a wrench into the the whole culture of competition for starting spots on the 26-man roster. I know Gregory Polanco has pretty much thrown this out the window to a certain degree by being penned in to play right field after hitting .198 with a 33.35% K rate and 13 homers over the last two seasons, which equates to 92 games; but hey, his exit velocity jumped to 92.9 last year and he hit an opposite field bomb the other day in Spring Training. Of course I write this somewhat in jest, however, it could seriously allow players without options, or possible a couple of the NRIs on Minor League deals, who are outplayed by those with them to make the Opening Day Squad; at least to begin the season. I understand this happens every season to a certain degree, so it’s not really something to overthink; still I can’t erase it completely from my mind.
Although to me the more interesting set of circumstances will be the players who are assigned to the alternate site/AAA in conjunction with the ones that remain in Bradenton to begin Minor League Spring Training as it will give us a better idea concerning the prospects who are seen as more MLB ready; including the guys who are on the bubble between AAA-Indianapolis and AA-Altoona. That group could include Travis Swaggerty, Mason Martin, Cal Mitchell, Rodolfo Castro, Max Kranick, all of whom ended the 2019 MiLB season in High A-Bradenton; with the last two being added to the 40-man roster back in November to protect them from being selected in the Rule 5 Draft.
No matter how things go over the next month, the almost inevitable delay of the AAA has surely added an interesting wrinkle to roster decisions Cherington will be forced to make.